I landed on the island of Kunashir after an hour’s flight from Sakhalin and drove over a bumpy dirt road to the settlement of Yuzhno-Kurilsk. Wrapped in the mist, the lethargic three thousand strong administrative center shocked me with its realities as a Russian province. I had the impression that everything here revolves in one place and sinks into a swamp of stagnation. Large puddles of water make it difficult to reach wooden cottages covered with tar paper. The intoxicating smell of fish rises from the fish cannery processing complex. Damaged by the earthquake in 1994, the town hall scares us with its emptiness. There is a complete mess all around us: abandoned parts of machinery, a dumpsite of rusty cans, crumbling tires, broken glass, lush weeds, piles of waste, and the skeletons of started and unfinished buildings.
On a beach covered with black sand of volcanic origin, there are traces of Japanese civilization: plastic bags thrown up by the waves, beer boxes and bottles. Among them are several shipwrecks that a tsunamis washed ashore, which also caused enormous destruction in the region. There are no investments made on a wider scale. After the earthquake on this island of 1,500 km2, a third part of the population left permanently. Today, less than 8,000 inhabitants live here, and on all the disputed islands there are about 30,000 people, half of them military.
A Kuril map cut out from the illustrated weekly hangs in the guest room. The archipelago of several dozen volcanic islands stretches from Kamchatka to Japan over a 1,200 km long arch. It covers an area of about 16,000 km2, of which one third, or the same as the two Swedish islands of Gotland, are the disputed territory. Next to it hangs a poster of an island covered with virgin forests of intense, lush greenery.
Penetration of the archipelago began in the second half of the eighteenth century by both the Japanese and the Russians. Over time, colonization matters became so complicated that today, both sides are claiming the Southern Kuriles. In 1855, both countries concluded the “Agreement about the Border” at Shimoda, leaving four islands on the side of Japan. However, the Big Three agreement in Yalta in February of 1945 awarded them to the USSR. Two weeks after the end of World War II in this area, the Soviet army seized these islands and displaced 17,000 Japanese people, settling Russians in their place. To this day, Tokyo cannot forgive the Big Three, arguing that the Shikotan Islands and Habomai do not belong to the Kurilic chain at all, but are an extension of the island of Hokaido, while Kunashir and Etorofu have always been part of the Japanese Empire.
As if to confirm the proverbial Russian hospitality, Borys Umnow, an official in the commune, brings us a kilogram of delicious homemade red caviar, a whole meal loaf of bread, a jar of sea cabbage shining strongly with iodine and a flask of vodka that is inevitable on such occasions. “Tell them in Europe,” advises our host with a sincere look that awakens our trust, “that this land is ours. We’ve worked here all our lives and our children were born here, we’re not going to give it to the Japanese.”
“We do not want to repeat the case of Alaska, which after the defeat of Russia in the Crimean war the Americans bought from Tsar Alexander II for a symbolic sum of $7.2 million in 1867,” Andrey, one of the town’s inhabitants, will later tell us. He came here encouraged by the prospect of privileges and better earnings, but he failed, now living in a state of apathy and on the verge of poverty. He did not leave because he has nowhere to go.
The Japanese side also presents an equally uncompromising position as Russia. “The recovery of these islands is a question of our country’s dignity, emphasizing national pride,” notes the age old Japanese woman who came to pray at her grandfather’s grave. In Japan, nationalist moods are awakening young people and there is growing public pressure on the government to regain the Northern Territories.
The Kuril problem has a wider aspect. The waters of this region belong to one of the world’s richest salmon and crab fisheries. In addition, the islands are a natural barrier blocking access to the Okhotsk Sea, hence the presence of Russian missile, air and submarine bases, which are of great strategic importance for Moscow.